We’re Number 3 (maybe)

I really don’t have much faith in lists put out by magazines and other organizations that claim to identify the ten best or the ten worst places for a given attribute. Often, the criteria used for making the claim is very limited and doesn’t take into consideration important factors. Analysts looking at census data or FBI crime reports see part of the picture but not the whole story.

Albany was recently declared to be the third safest city in Oregon by a company known as Backgroundchecks.com; and while I agree with their conclusion, I really don’t know how they arrived at it. We know we have a very low violent crime rate relative to other places and, I suspect, that may be the most important indicator the company used. They also looked at social media in some way, and I have no idea how looking at Facebook posts helps you determine the relative safety of a community. I believe we are a safe community because of my own experience here over the past decade, the amount of money we spend every year to keep it safe, and the high quality of people we hire to ensure safety. But, no amount of crime data will make someone who has just been the victim of a crime feel they live in a safe place.

We typically do well in rankings of good places to live because Albany has a long history of investing in itself and a large number of residents who dedicate their time as volunteers for community-building activities. We achieve great results despite the fact that we are not a wealthy place. Usually, the places that appear on the best-places-to-live lists tend to be the ones with the most money.

A few years ago, Albany ranked about 24th in the state on someone’s list of strongest economies while both Lebanon and Corvallis ranked substantially higher. I found after looking at their criteria that the ranking was based on one year’s data and heavily emphasized growth. Albany ranked much higher than Lebanon and only slightly lower than Corvallis on most of the indicators, but we grew at a slower rate in the year that was sampled. Even assuming they were looking at the right measures, the rating was a complete distortion of economic strength.

Similarly, Oregon always gets a low rating from magazines listing the best retirement locations because of our tax structure. Oregon is not a high tax state, but we do place great reliance on income tax. Apparently, raters assume old people buy less and consequently pay less sales tax than younger people; and while that may be true, it says nothing about the quality of life for retirees in Oregon. We live in a comparatively safe, prosperous state that millions of tourists come to see every year. You can probably live more cheaply in other places, but you run the risk of getting what you pay for.

Lists can be fun and raise useful questions as long as they are kept in proper perspective. I have no problem celebrating our ranking as one of Oregon’s safest cities, while acknowledging that many other communities are probably just as safe and that we all have more work to do.